On coercive philanthropy and change: Breakups may be good and necessary

its_not_you_its_me_heart_candyClay Lord has been on fire over this past week with a couple truly substantive and provocative posts—both aimed at issues around ethnic diversity in the arts. The first asserts that (1) valuing diversity and managing it are different (the former relatively easy, the latter not so much) and (2) funders interested in funding organizations to reach more diverse audiences are not as patient as they need to be if they want to see this change realized. The second post examines data from the Bay Area that attests to the (relative) lack of ethnic diversity in audiences among a sample of arts organizations and pleads for greater attention to this particular issue.

In conjunction with the second post, Clay tweeted a question to his followers that drew quite a lot of responses. The question: “Should an arts organization that finds itself located in a more diverse community be expected to serve a more diverse audience?”

Clay asked me a very similar question when he interviewed me a few years back and, as I recall, I responded that I thought that for the major “flagship” theaters in the US it was not at all unreasonable to expect plays to be selected with an eye to reflecting the different values and stories and communities that exist within a the theater’s geographic area over the course of a season or two.

It’s, of course, quite different for organizations that were created with narrower missions. If your mission is to support Hispanic writers and serve Hispanic audiences (because they are under-served by large flagship organizations, even if they may be presenting a Hispanic work every year or two) then why add the burden of being required to also draw non-Hispanic audiences? These organizations exist to compensate for the preponderance of organizations serving white people. On the Boards, where I worked at one time, has distinctive programming that draws younger-than-average audiences who make far less than the medium income in Seattle. This is also diversity.

In other words, the value of such boutique organizations is that they deeply serve particular communities; they are diverse in aggregate. The value of a broad-based organization is that it can more broadly represent the community over the course of a season or two.

We need both.

And, of course, we recognize what keeps the flagship organizations from abandoning their current programming strategies (which are perceived to serve a rather narrow demographic of white, upper middle class, old people) and it is something like Clayton Christensen’s innovator’s dilemma. The major theaters often have loyal, donating subscribers upon whom they depend for annual operating support. As Clay points out in his post, they (rightly) perceive that changing the programming might drive some of them away.

As I’ve written and talked about for years, Centerstage theater in Baltimore went through this. When Irene Lewis arrived the theater was doing white plays with white actors for white audiences. Baltimore is 67%  African American. She felt that the theater was not serving its community and so she began changing the programming and (importantly) the marketing. I interviewed Irene about this once and she said that early on they lost subscribers, some patrons were not at all happy with the shift, and she was challenged on the new direction. Centerstage persevered, however, in large part because Irene (and I suspect others) were deeply committed to the change. Centerstage eventually replaced the lost subscribers with others that embraced the new direction of the theater. Irene told me it took ten years for the change to be fully realized. When I spoke to her about five years ago, the “African  American plays” in their season were drawing the largest audiences of the season.

There are three lessons I get from this story: (1) Change will come in the arts sector when leaders are committed to change. (Throwing money at “reluctant dragons” is a waste of time and precious resource.); (2) If you want more diverse audiences change the programming; and (3) Once you change the programming, be patient. It takes a long time (ten years!) and you need to be willing to lose some current patrons in order to gain new ones.*

When’s the last time you heard of a ten-year (not initiative) grant? As Clay points out, most foundations are not patient. They want results within a “grant period” often designed to accommodate the needs and cycles of foundations rather than the needs and cycles of institutions and projects.

But impatience isn’t the only issue. I was at a meeting awhile back where someone that used to work at a private foundation (as did I) said, “Private foundations can be recklessly fickle.” Indeed. Or at the very least they can appear to be so when they decide to abandon initiatives because they often fail to provide satisfactory reasons for their actions.

Or even when they are transparent and articulate their new “strategies” and substantiate them with research, they overestimate the value and impact of a $300,000 grant on an organization with a multi-million dollar operating budget that has several large stakeholders, each of whom is giving a bit of money and hoping for value alignment in return.

The laundry list of philanthropic offenses is long and well chronicled by others but these are a few that relate directly to this issue of funding strategies around diversity and their impact on arts organizations.

So let’s talk about funding strategies. As many have noted, foundations are rarely content these days to simply be helpful; they feel compelled to be strategic. We hear quite a bit about strategic philanthropy—which strikes me as an oxymoronic concept. Coercion might be a better word for it (Bob Brustein wrote an essay awhile back called Coercive Philanthropy that has influenced my thinking on this; but I would propose that once it’s coercion it’s no longer philanthropy).

I also remember listening to the brilliant Adrian Ellis of AEA Consulting at an Americans for the Arts Conference in 2010 say something like (and I’m paraphrasing from memory so hope I have this right), “The more strategic a foundation is the less able it is to support the strategies of individual organizations.” I couldn’t agree more.

Hence the dilemma of Irvine (which Nina Simon points out in her post about Irvine’s new strategy): Irvine sets a new strategy around audience participation but is experiencing a mixed response from the field and has not received as many strong applications as it hoped (or this is what I perceive to be the issue from Nina’s post).  Irvine appears to be interested in bringing about a kind of diversity (i.e., change) in the arts sector we don’t often talk about: aesthetic diversity. Irvine’s strategy is not fickle. It has done the research. The research has suggested that if Irvine really wants to have impact it will support organizations that engage community members in the co-creation of work rather than organizations that present professional work produced for what are now often referred to as “passive” audiences. I have to believe the research is robust (as it’s a major foundation with sufficient funds to hire smart researchers).

However well-researched and justified, Irvine must recognize (and I think it does) that its strategy is out of line with the missions of a majority of professional arts organizations, which were formed to present work by professionals for audiences that come to appreciate that work, not make it. (Clay also makes this point in his comments to Nina Simon’s post.) It should expect resistance and attempts by organizations to make token adjustments but still appear worthy of a grant. If I ran an arts organization and needed to change the aesthetic orientation of my organization to get a grant I think I would be a very poor leader, indeed, if I applied for that grant in earnest without serious discussion involving the entire staff and board.

There are organizations, like the one lead by the visionary Nina Simon, for whom Irvine’s new guidelines are water in a desert (as she discusses in her post). They share Irvine’s values, and the work they are doing has been undervalued for too long. The Irvine grant is a source of legitimacy for such organizations.

And the rest?

Well, I’m guessing it feels more like a bucket of cold water in the face.

Irvine needs to recognize that it is endeavoring to coax organizations into uncharted territory. It wants to coerce a change that many cannot, or do not want, to make. Again, I’m guessing they know this.  Any organization can do a project here or there in which they let the audience participate in the process. But to reorient an organization away from a structure set up to support professionals presenting the work requires more than money. I reckon it requires a shift in leadership (on the board and staff). It is that fundamental.

So what’s the lesson?

One might jump to the conclusion that foundations should perhaps not attempt to fund change in a system unless they are committed to providing funding for as long as it takes for that change to be realized.

Another conclusion might be that foundations shouldn’t try to change fields and sectors at all, and should content themselves with providing support to nonprofits already doing excellent work that aligns with their priorities.

I seriously question whether funding organizations to make them change works. Has any organization that was reluctant to change made substantive long-term change because of a grant? I suspect any change that happens probably has more to do with leadership, other sources of income, and an intent to change that was already solid before the grant arrived.

And when change fails to be manifested? Well, I would wager that a majority of foundations perceive that organizations are at fault in that case (not the grantmaking strategy). And why wouldn’t they? Organizations write proposals in which they promise to change themselves in dramatic ways for ridiculously small amounts of money and over unreasonable periods of time. They lie about what they can do. They choose to do this to get the money. Foundations choose to believe these lies because it’s convenient to believe that it’s possible to change the world in 3-5 year cycles.

Perhaps rather than trying to change the behaviors of foundations (who have proven to be rather immune to such attempts) organizations need to change their responses to such initiatives. For instance, when that next RFP for a new funding initiative is announced:

(1) Don’t apply for the money, no matter how desperate you are for resources, if the proposal guidelines make you roll your eyes. If this is a foundation that has funded you in the past and this change means you are no longer eligible for funding, write a letter to the Foundation articulating the strategy you are following and why you believe it to have merit. Let them know that you will not be applying for a grant because it would destabilize your organization as it would pull you off what you consider to be a sound strategy. Let them know that if they are ever interested in supporting your organization to continue the good work you are already doing, and the positive impact you are already having in the community, you would be most grateful for the opportunity to apply for a grant.

(2) If you read the application and the funder appears to be interested to support a change you do want to make in your organization (cultivating more diverse audiences, for instance), don’t apply for that grant until you have calculated the total cost of that change on your organization over the next decade and can present that number in your application to the funder, letting the funder know (a) how long you reasonably expect it to take for the change to be implemented; (b) how much you expect it to cost; and (c) the amount you would need from the funder to commit to making the change. If the funder wants you to lower the number and shorten the timeline, or for the program to be self-sustaining after three years, don’t apply unless you have in writing a commitment from board members or donors to fund the program (on top of their current contributions) once the initial funding runs out. If those elements are not in place, write a letter to the foundation explaining the work you want to do that aligns with their values and why you will not apply, and walk way.

I know organizations that are desperate for resources feel as though they cannot afford to say no to the possibility of money. However, I can almost guarantee that you will be better off financially five years from now from having stayed the course with your strategy than from having grown an extra appendage or two in order to get a few grants in the door. We know that such grants have an inflationary effect on the operating budget and the money always goes away too soon.

And on the other side of the table, funders need to be prepared to read such letters, take the heat, and keep walking if they believe they are on the right path. Former grantees may feel betrayed; it’s hard to fall out of favor with a foundation. There will be grumbling by people all over the field, I suspect. (I’m assuming, of course, that foundations are making exit grants to longstanding grantees, or giving them ample notice that funding will not be renewed, and not simply pulling the rug out from underneath them.)

Sure, an honest conversation could lead to a necessary and healthy break up (which is hard), but even this would leave both parties free to pursue their preferred and diverging strategies. But perhaps through a candid discussion common ground could be found; such a conversation might also lead to a stronger relationship, if not now, at some point in the future.

*”Reluctant dragons” is a term that was frequently used by a former funding colleague to refer to organizations hesitant to adopt a particular (foundation funded) practice.

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  1. says

    Great post, Diane.

    I think of the funder conundrum as highly analogous to the institutional one. Do foundations have more obligation to their longstanding grantees than arts organizations have to their longtime donors and subscribers? I would argue that they do not.

    As someone who has led a bit of the kind of demographic audience change that you describe here, I’ve always believed strongly in listening for the silenced voices of those who were not participating because they felt excluded or disenfranchised by the institution in the past. Change requires imagining the voices of those prospective partners and patrons alongside the existing ones who may be frustrated. And it means actively seeking out those new folks and believing that they are out there. In Irvine’s case, the research shows that active participation is a leading form of arts involvement. So who’s enabling that? What organizations should they fund that are engaging people in these ways?

    I agree with you that foundations can’t change strategy in a vacuum. Just as we had to seek out, court, and engage new audiences in our community who wanted a more participatory and social museum experience, so do foundations have to aggressively hunt for organizations that might be more in-line with new grantmaking priorities than their past grantees. Certainly as a prospective grantee, I’m doing that all the time–hunting for foundations or individuals who might be great partners for our particular approach to culture work. Your suggestion #1, to avoid applying for incongruous grant programs, is something we do every day. It’s never even crossed my mind to write to a funder and say, “I think your exclusive focus on quality is wrong.” They have the right to give money as they see fit. We have the right to define our direction as we see fit. And if we can influence and persuade each other along the way, so be it.

    The more work I do in this arena, the more important I feel it is to find and empower and learn from potential leaders of meaningful change and the less important it is to convince the “dragons” as you call them that change is necessary. Or at least, that’s where I see the most efficient use of our limited time.

    • says

      Ms. Simon,

      We met at NAMP, and you rocked my socks. Mostly we talked about pricing. I also think your analogy (funder : organization :: organization : long-time donor) is a great way to dig into this problem. Reading this post I kept on thinking about funders not changing merely where the money goes, but how the money goes. Instead of turning to a fledgling organization in line with the funder’s new principles and asking it to behave as if it had the development staff of a major museum, maybe have a different understanding of what the funder relationship is supposed to look like in order to provide better help to the organization in question.

      The last issue of #24mag happened a week ago, and Mohawk Paper sponsored us. They send a marketing person along, and she liveblogged the whole experience, interviewed the contributors, and then did the dishes. The marketing person, ostensibly our advertiser, kinda, turned up and washed dishes. What would it be like if a foundation, instead of requiring complex and detailed reports and proposals from organizations it wanted to transform, lent them staffers?

      That’s the kind of transformation I imagine you having made at Santa Cruz (I’ve never been). It’s not just about finding new audiences, but about figuring out what kinds of experiences they’re interested in, and how the museum fits into that. It’s easy to think about the “museum outing” that an upper middle class family has on weekend afternoons, and the subscription model that supports it, but that’s not the whole of what you’re doing, and you’ve invented new ways for people to participate with the museum to respond to that.

      I think your analogy is awesome, and following through on it means making serious changes in how philanthropy functions.

      Also, rock on, and stuff.

      • says

        Hi Kevin! (And please, call me Nina…) It’s great to hear from you again. NAMP was an intense end to a long trip for me, and it was hugely wonderful.

        Your story is a great one, and you are right – that is the kind of change that could make a big difference for organizations – at least for ones with enough flexibility and transparency to make that kind of participation meaningful. As a new ED, I’m always trying to understand how much I should be sharing with funders, when I’m bothering them, etc. I imagine many program officers would relish the opportunity to dive in with the organizations they support rather than doing a brief meeting every year.

        But in some ways, it seems like it would be more valuable for the funder to help bring in outsiders with specific skills to really support the organization’s growth. Otherwise, you have a system like Peace Corps–really good experience for the participant, unclear value to the organization/client site. It’s great that the marketing person jumped in and did dishes. But were dishes the most important task to get done? If I had the option between a program officer getting in the weeds with us and making gingerbread boardwalks vs. that program officer meeting with me monthly and helping us bring in expert marketers or evaluators or gingerbread-makers, I’d choose option B. And it strikes me that that is only a slightly more flexible and engaged approach than how most foundations already do capacity-building grants.

        And it sounds a lot like what the best board members do. So is this a role for foundations? I’m not sure. I’m still way too green in this area to have a well-defined sense of how all these relationships might work best.

        • says

          I agree – I should go back and say that I mean to suggest that a lending-staff-members model is meant to show the range of change in how grants get awarded that I’m talking about. Not just going from 1 to 5 to 10 year grants, but doing as substantial things to that relationship as you’re doing to the patron/museum one. Not necessarily that I think it’s the best thing to do.

          Peace Corps is a great counterexample. Makes Americans better, doesn’t do a huge amount of international development.

          Right then? The dishes were the most helpful thing she could do. I’m biased – I was cooking for everyone – but as an outsider the most productive work at certain points is just keeping the beast running, and leaving the heavy lifting for others. Which, I suppose, is also a good critique of the staff-lending notion.

  2. says

    Thank you, Diane, for your deep thoughts on this subject. Though I’ve been going through all that you describe and studying experiences of other companies, I cannot say I am as positive as you about the end result. One reason is I am too old and burnt-out to wait out a ten-year cycle of possible change that may never happen anyway. I have a small (smaller than what foundations seem to dub small) company dedicated to taking professional theatre to underserved audiences in low-income schools, libraries, senior centers, rec centers, nursing homes, and more. For 30 years, we supported our multicultural company’s efforts throughout NYC and the Northeast and paid our artists. We had audiences that were just grateful we cared enough to show up. Audiences that laughed and cried with us. Audiences that learned about heroes from their own cultures that they had never heard of. Audiences who could identify with the material we presented and understood how much we cared about their problems and concerns. Audiences that stayed to discuss the issues in the material presented. Audiences in the thousands annually who told us we had changed their lives. Up until 5 years ago, we were able to manage on a shoestring combination of government & foundation funding combined with nominal fees from organizations… and then it all began to fall apart. Funding was cut back to us and to the organizational programs that previously could afford a fee. In fact, many of those programs were cut all together. Recently, we have done just as you said: withdrawn from applying to foundations via a sincere letter about our situation. They are understanding, but they have no programs in place to help us through a prolonged period of figuring out how to proceed. And, I realize that ours is just a microcosm of arts & culture being removed from society around the world. The more “strategic” planning, testing, excruciatingly detailed quarterly reports, pie charts & graphs are used to judge the value of arts & culture, the more they are going to disappear. Hundreds, if not thousands of theatres, opera, dance companies, poetry clubs, and arts service organizations have disappeared in New York alone. It breaks my heart that we are unable to inspire, offer hope, give validation, and change the lives of people who need it so much — tell me, how can that be reflected in a pie chart? Though I am certainly not a politically, corporate, or religiously paranoid person, I wonder just what is the Master Plan here.

    • says

      Dear Melba,

      Thanks for your email, which (I must say) nearly took my breath away. You are right. We are losing small companies–in large part because we do (not know how to) value their impact. I am sometimes accused of “beating up on big institutions” because I am critically worried about the part of our sector (the SMEs) that (often) take the most risks, have the deepest and most personal engagement with their members or stakeholders, and reach a class of people beyond the upper middle class audiences that patronize the major institutions. I worry that we are taking care of large institutions at the expense of these smaller organizations.

      I believe small organizations need to pursue new paths. For several years I’ve had a dream of a matchmaking program between the small family foundations in the US (most of which do NOT fund the arts) and small and medium-sized arts groups (modeled on something like the Arts Australia program that does just this sort of thing for arts organizations there). If anyone ever wants to pursue this idea I think we should see if we could get it off the ground.

      I don’t think there’s a Master Plan — but I do not think that, by-and-large, arts organizations can or should think of their funders as partners anymore. Most funders are not constant enough to be partners. Even those that have a relatively stable cohort of grantees change initiatives, increase and decrease support, and cycle people in and out on unpredictable timelines. It’s the way they work. In large part this is in order to avoid a situation in which an organization becomes too dependent and then is crippled if funding goes away. So we can’t depend upon them–almost by design.

      You raise a critical point, however. While many funders are keen to fund “innovation” very few are willing to fund something quite basic like a “period of reflection to figure out how to proceed”. It seems we now need to turn to other stakeholders for such things … Perhaps you need to ask some of your key stakeholders to join you for a weekend to think about your organization and its future. Even if they don’t have a big check to put on the table they will bring ideas and encouragement and empathy.

      I see how critical things have become for organizations like your own; at the same time, I have never felt more certain about the value of smaller arts organizations in the US. Thanks for the work you are doing.

      • says

        In researching Arts Australia, as you suggested, I came across this very recent severe cut to the regional local artists and their touring productions. Having met a large delegation of artists sent by the Australian Arts Council to the ietm conference in Zagreb, I was very impressed with the amount of support for the arts in that country. However, one of the artists sought me out because she has a similar mission to ours in touring to the underserved in the northern regions, including Aborigines. She indicated support was not so forthcoming for her, though they were functioning. This cut looks like a really bad omen for her company.


  3. says

    This is a tremendously important post. What Diane proposes in her conclusion is quietly revolutionary: organizations using their negative capability (NOT submitting a proposal) to push back against foundations and claim a bit of agency in shaping policy. From your mouth to God’s ear, Diane!

  4. says

    Diane, thank you for this post. And Melba LaRose, thank you for your comment. I work with an arts service organization in the greater Boston/NE area. Last fall we hosted three conversations about diversity, inclusion, and gender parity in the theater community. Over 30 people self selected to come to these conversations, and help brainstorm some strategies for our sector to create change. I am working on the report now, and see is as the very beginning of a process. Ms. LaRose’s comment came up in several different ways during our conversations. One producer talked about the number of heritage (her terminology) organizations that are going under, and commented that “they” are worried about diversifying “their” theaters, not supporting the smaller organizations and groups that are under the radar. This comment, and the despair of the people in the room who felt that they had been having the same conversation for ten years, without change, were hard to hear.

    Diane, I like the ideas for reframing how the sector gets support. And your matchmaking idea intrigues me…

    Thanks, as always, for making me think.

  5. says

    Diane: Thank you, again, for this terrifically thoughtful post. I’m convinced that it’s impossible to advance the dialogue on issues we face without possessing and sharing a critical stance. The perspectives that you and other thinkers contribute is critical to our field’s health which directly ties to our effectiveness as nonprofit providers of the arts. And we at Irvine especially value and appreciate that people are writing, critiquing and engaging with our strategy! What particularly resonated with me about what you’ve written is the concept of “we need both”. We’re finding that the more we can articulate how our work is more about “both/and” than “either/or” the better, both in terms of what you specifically refer to, narrow- vs. broad-based organizational orientation, but also with respect to the notion of participation. There seems to be a misreading of our strategy on those counts so I’ll be taking some time to address that in a longer post on the Irvine website coming up in the next couple of weeks. Again, thanks for an engaging post.

    • says

      Dear Josephine,

      Thanks for weighing in. It am once again struck by the fact that you and the program staff at Irvine continually have your ears open to the field and are willing to engage in discussion about your programs. I look forward to seeing your longer post and am happy to post a link from Jumper once it’s up.

      And it strikes me that we need more “both/and” thinking in our field. It’s encouraging to hear that you are thinking this way.


  6. says


    Just wanted to support your contention that if an organization jettisons off-mission sources of funding to sharpen focus on mission it is possible to find more and better (in that it requires you to do something you already wanted to do) funding to replace and exceed what you’ve walked away from.

    Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company for many years operated a very nice, well received theatre education program as a side car to its regular play production and presentation work. It involved a program to teach school kids how to write short plays, then produce some of them in front of an audience of their peers and parents performed by professional actors. Kids were highly motivated by the fact that they were going to get to make grown ups say whatever they wrote on the page. It was a model also used, at larger scale because it was their whole mission, by Young Playwrights Theater.

    At Woolly, the education activity, while beloved, was always completely separate from the primary mission of creating explosive engagement between theatre artists and members of the community. Among other things, almost none of its produced plays were suitable for students of the program. Four years ago, Woolly essentially handed its base of clients over to YPT and shut down the education department. That made them ineligible for a number of grants they had been receiving for years.

    In place of that part of the organization, Woolly began to create what is now called the Connectivity Department. A team dedicated to discovering and delivering whatever extra is required to achieve explosive engagement beyond producing incendiary art. This is an ongoing innovation that will, as you suggested could be the case, potentially take decades to fully express itself, but even the early halting steps that have been taken are positive and promising.

    And most strongly to the point of your article, it has been a gold mine in foundation funding. That wasn’t why Woolly made the change, but it has been a helpful benefit of reorganizing activity and operations to more closely align with mission.

  7. says

    If you put enough private art funders in a room with typewriters sooner of later one of them may come up with an artistic idea. Or you could just give the money to those who make the art.

  8. Clay Lord says

    Diane, I love how you’ve articulated all of these components. I did want to clarify one thing you attributed to me towards the beginning of your piece–while I think it’s fair to say that I do think foundations are often not patient, I tend to think sometimes patience isn’t the issue. Innovation is expensive–more expensive than I think we’re used to dealing with in our relatively underfunded part of the world. As you can likely attest from your work at Mellon (I’m thinking here of the visioning and action plan Mellon funded around Project Audience), even just thinking through a paradigm-shifting idea takes a tremendous amount of money, faith and time–all of which are in short supply (on different scales) for both individual arts institutions and funders. I just got an email from a thinker in the field where he tacitly admitted to conversations with funders where they, in turn, admit to not really thinking longitudinally about the implementation and impact of disruptive policies (in this case, diversity), because they “very rarely” lead to sustained change. That’s an issue.

    Separately, I applaud Josephine and Ted and everyone at Irvine for being interested in their policy decisions becoming fodder for conversation. In a way, whether they meant to or not, what it feels like to me is that they’re staking out the far left in hopes of driving the general field a little closer to the middle than the right. That’s admirable. My largest question, I think–getting away here from the specifics of that “uncharted territory” you mention–is the issue of the proscription versus natural progress. To step away from the arts for a second, it’s the difference between generating grassroots and state-level support for gay marriage, chipping away slowly and organically at old ideas with new arguments, and getting the Supreme Court to just declare gay marriage legal. Same result in the end, but at a certain point you’re damaging your long-term uptake by not allowing the people affected to evolve. This, of course, can also be an excuse for inaction, and that’s problematic–but we’re not talking here about a small-but-vocal interest group, we’re talking about the largest arts funder in California and one of the most influential arts funders in the country. That’s a lot of power and a lot of fear, especially coupled with public exhortations to other funders to follow their lead. I’m encouraged to hear intimations of more nuance coming into their strategy, and I hope there can be some public forums and discussions about what movement towards a middle ground might also be allowed or even encouraged as incremental success in the field.

    I’m humbled that you used my writing as jumping off point, thanks so much. And congrats on another incredibly thought-provoking post.

  9. says

    As an new director of an organization with a bucket of cold water perched on the door (our third year of an Irvine grant ends next year,) I am torn. The loss of operational support to underwrite research and development time for California artists creates a giant hole in the stability/vitality of our organization and the communities these artists go on to serve. Unfortunately, this new hole is close to other holes that have been ripped by narrowed geographical requirements of other long-term foundation donors. A geographically remote mountainside in a county with no substantive public sector investment in arts and culture coupled with a persistent and erroneous belief that our founder “pays for everything,” completes my whining tale of woe. (Individual donors will the the key but they don’t spring very quickly from the head of Zeus). Has the value of the work changed? I don’t think so but some funders priorities HAVE changed.

    Having said that, let me speak now as a former grantmaker who tried–sometimes successfully- to use funding criteria as a path to a more inclusive cultural community. Having worked in the public/private grantmaking sector for 20 years, I applaud funders who seek strategy and long-term change via their grantmaking. As a grantmaker, I added, “please describe how your organization and programs reflect the community you serve” to every set of guidelines we ever revised. We also tried to be data-driven, creating databases that helped organizations discover this information for themselves. There were no quotas BUT it was easy to see who had put thought and action into this requirement and who was just telling us what they thought we wanted to hear.

    The desperation for money drives a lot of strategic short-cuts and, “gee, we could do this if we got the money” attitudes. Mission drift is directly proportional to the size of the funding carrots waved by public and private funders. Grantmakers who narrow parameters too much may end up with outcomes out of synch with their desires. Grantmakers get fooled all the time (I know I did). Money doesn’t make these outcomes happen–integrity and “tone at the top” do. BUT since there is no full communication among people (or organizations) with unequal power, the story that gets told to the grantmaker is not always the truthful narrative of the grantee.

    As a grantmaker, we would engage in direct contracts with smaller, culturally -specific organizations who were already working with underserved populations rather than subject them to the competitive, arms-length grantsmaking process, relieving them of an administrative burden they couldn’t bear. They were already DOING work that aligned with our strategic interests–better to treat them as a full partner than a grantee. We would also do some match-making with larger organizations for collaborative programming. By the same token, we added a “you-define-it” public service component to grants for individuals artists as well.

    The specific focus on creative placemaking and community engagement is a particular challenge for cultural organizations not in the audience business, per se. For those of us at the headwaters–where art originates–I think the path is to learn more about the social practices of the artists who reside with us. We also need to have a plan to learn about where they go and how their work ends up on stage, page, wall, classroom and town square. And, the responsibility also lies with us to broaden the recruiting net so there is always a diverse (running the gamut from age, to geography, to ethnicity, to aesthetic, etc) pool from which to choose residents.

    So as the bucket of cold water starts to tip, I’m not feeling either coerced OR coaxed–but challenged. That’s never a bad thing.

  10. says

    Hi Diane,
    What a spirited and an engaging discussion you have stimulated, along with Clay, Barry and Nina. It prompted me to post the following our the Irvine website, which I wanted to share with you and your readers:


    Let’s keep the discussion going, and I know Josephine plans to post something soon as well. We so appreciate your engaging on these ideas and concepts so directly and honestly.

    Best to you!

  11. says

    Seems to me that the idea of private foundations using grant-making policy as “strategy” for change within arts organization is an expression of privilege and power that doesn’t cop to the American reality of art and culture making being chronically underfunded.

    I’ve recently been in touch with a Taiwanese playwright-director who works all over the Chinese diaspora and, more recently, on the Mainland too. The kind of support his ensemble gets from government (national and municipal) is way beyond what American companies get. That support, over the last 30 years, allowed them to invent a modern Chinese-language theatre where none had existed. How’s that for funding empowering change? Along with the newly invented modern theatre in Taipei in the 80s, came a large, enthusiastic audience. Now Beijing and Shanghai are discovering that serious, demanding theatre can draw very large audiences. Currently, this director is preparing the BJ premiere of an 8 hour long play of his in one of the city’s largest theatre venues which had to be completely reconfigured to accommodate the needs of the play. Could it possibly change the culture?

    I’d tend to argue that it could. Another instance, here in the U.S. that I had a tiny bit of experience with was the sadly defunct A. S. K. Theatre Projects in LA which, by supporting playwrights and new works in a number of ways,
    provoked what this former Angelino had to describe as a theatre renaissance when I started traveling back to that city in the oughts. To be crude about it and speaking only from the grantee side of the transaction, it’s the fact of the money — its presence or absence — that shapes, determines, directs, nurtures or shuts down arts activity much more than differences in the particular hoops (guidelines, initiatives…) one must jump through to get it. I’m sorry if this sounds bitter or cynical. I bear no animus against people working on the grantor side of the street. If the U.S. government funding were less primitive and mean-spirited the private foundations might have the breathing space to develop themselves as creative *partners* to artists and arts orgs. But at the moment, the relationship is so unbalanced — at least for mid size and small companies whose continued existence too often depends on that pending 3 year grant — that what passes for “dialogue” between grantor and recipient is frequently a ritual exchange in which the supplicant organization does its best to be seen as the very embodiment of the foundation’s current strategy. A decision to drop the charade can, I’m here to tell you, leave a company no course other than extinction.

    • says

      Right on Corey Fischer. For over 25 years the NEA had a system that provided needed funds directly to the artists, writers, and performers who make our cultural. That system of awarding support based on merit, decided by peer/professional review, worked. One only has to look back at the young and old artists who were supported who have gone one to be our national treasures to see the effect of the program.

      The only reason it stopped was because it became an ideological scapegoat for the political right who demanded the increasingly privatized system we have today. A system ripe with even more problematic issues and inefficiencies than the original.

      Those art organizations and private funding foundations who control the context by which art is shown control the content of what art is shown. And that is never a good thing for the arts.

    • says

      Corey, I continue to believe there’s a middle ground here. Again, however you state it, the challenge boils down to the inability to have full, authentic communication between people or organizations with unequal power. In this and many cases, money is the power. Every so often, the power resides in the artist and/or the curatorial vision of the conductor, theatre or museum director but the need for cold hard cash drives a lot of what you call “ritual dialog” between grantor and grantee.

      One of the paths is to be more artist-centric and to trust artists. The more organizations that bind artists together (and become 501c3s or not) to produce or present have this as a core value, the stronger and more vibrant the vision. The more private and public funders look at the settled purpose of an organization and assess its internal consistency vis a vis its artistic direction, the better. Being “in the black” is not a vision. I am a passionate believer in multi-year, general operating support and wish more public and private funders were, too.

      Public funders–due to the nature of their revenue–MUST look at inclusiveness in operations, programming and audiences. Public funders must be mindful of matching the benefits of their dollars to the demographics of the citizens who pay taxes. It’s the right thing to do.

      Private foundations also heed the wishes of their creators. Sometimes these are crystal-clear; sometimes current management does their best to interpret the founders’ vision. And sometimes strategy needs to be “updated” to meet current conditions. While it IS “an expression of privilege and power,” I don’t think it necessarily follows that these directions are NOT sensitive to the issues of chronic underfunding. In fact, many funding initiatives in the private sector have that as a primary aim. And I’m happy see a some funders take on the issue of chronic undercapitalization in some small but important ways.

      It is frustrating not to be in the sweet spot for these kinds of initiatives and exhilarating when, after years of hard work, you fit in. There IS a serendipitous nature to trends in arts funding. And it’s easy for the cultural sector to have an inferiority complex–we are routinely dismissed and undervalued in many sectors where we know we can be helpful, e.g. education, economic development, neighborhood revitalization. We have our Rodney Dangerfield rap down pat.

      But, by and large, those of us passionate about culture, have more that unites us than divides us. Which includes private foundations who want to undertake strategic initiatives to advance the needle in a particular direction. Except for the fact that people return your phone calls with more alacrity and sometimes give your ideas more attention than they’re worth, giving away money is as difficult as seeking it.

      And I am loving this whole thread. . . thanks Diane. As well as the transparency that drives the dialog. We may never get to FULL communication but at least we can risk sticking our necks out. Not our tongues.

      • says

        Thank you, Margot, for such a deeply considered response. And thank you for the reminder that “…those of us passionate about culture, have more that unites us than divides us.” I have felt that kinship over the years in many wonderful exchanges with gifted, compassionate and dedicated people who happened to be foundation executives or program officers. My problems are with all that remains broken and wounded in our collective American psyche, not with the folks in the trenches — whether making art, feeding the hungry, occupying Wall Street or trying to give money away.

        Today a friend told me that when her younger brother was 30, he made a list of all the ills that he believed would have disappeared by the time he would turn 60. He sealed the list and even had it notarized. Last year, when friends and family gathered for his 60th birthday, he opened the list for the first time in 30 years. As he read out the terrible problems that his 30 year old self was sure would be solved by 2012 — cures for cancer, the disappearance of racism, gender equality, abundant clean water and air — the celebrants’ spirits sank. None of his predictions were even close. We keep doing the same things, repeating the same sad patterns, somehow expecting different results. Not that we lack awareness of this. The whistles are being blown, the sirens are blaring, the prophets are speaking truth to power. Maybe the point of the story is that the healing we need is going to take way more than 30 years.

        As a counterbalance to all this Chekhovian Weltschmerz, I want to give a shout out to your organization’s *Djerassi Resident Artists Program*, Margot. The month I spent there in 1994, if I have the year right, was one of the most valuable gifts I’ve ever received. What the Djerassi offers is priceless: the time, means and opportunity to live, for a while, as if anything and everything were possible; to experience — even if temporarily — a microcosm in which creativity is celebrated and supported 24/7; A chance to fulfill the Ghandian imperative: becoming the change one desires.


  1. […] A few weeks back, in a guest-post on Engaging Matters, Roberto Bedoya extended an invitation for others to join him in blogging about “how the White Racial Frame intersects with cultural policies and cultural practices.” The proposition grew out of a series of posts (largely written by a bunch of white people, like me) focused specifically on the Irvine Foundation’s new participatory arts focus and, more generally, on (funding) diversity in the arts. I don’t feel qualified to address this topic and I’m positive I do not do it justice, but this is my sincere attempt to unpack some small part of this large issue. (You can read my previous posts on the the Irvine strategy here and here.) […]

  2. […] Diane Ragsdale has criticized how supporting the diversification of institutions needs much more than coercive support from the funding community, as the management of these shifts requires long-term support of organizations to truly make a change. However, Doug Borwick argues that we need to question who is leading this change, how investments are being made, and how we acknowledge the racial hierarchies of artists, arts managers, artistic leaders, and funders in the process of creating a multiracial “we” which is inclusive of gender, sexual, and class formations. […]

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